‘For pity’s sake!’
The sheep darted either side of Rosalind Allen, ignoring the open gate into the field where the rest of the flock grazed. Rosalind whirled around to see them scatter up the lane.
Her jaw snapped shut at the sight of an approaching horse and rider: a stranger. Instinctively, she tugged her shawl tighter around her head and body. But at least the sheep had wheeled around on spying the horseman and were dashing back in her direction. Rosalind threw her arms wide and waved the stick she had been throwing for Hector, to try again to divert the sheep through the open gate. This time the sheep swerved through the gateway and galloped, baaing loudly, to the far side of the paddock to join the rest of the flock, who were being discouraged from joining the runaways by Hector, Rosalind’s dog, still sitting on the spot where she had commanded him to ‘Stay!’.
Rosalind trudged to the gate, which listed drunkenly on its solitary hinge. She tucked the stick under one arm as she hefted the gate up and struggled through the mud to close it. Only when it was latched did she recall her hoydenish appearance. Conscious of the approaching rider, she pulled at her skirts, silently cursing. When she had set out on her walk, she had hitched her skirt to mid-calf level, using a belt, to keep the hem from soiling. Apart from old Tom the shepherd, she had never seen anyone else on her walks, but now—too late—she recalled a hunting party of gentlemen from London was staying at the nearby recently sold Halsdon Manor. She’d heard the huntsman’s horn earlier in the day, but had forgotten it until now… This man must be one of that hunting party.
‘Oh, no, don’t cover up those pretty legs, dear heart.’ The voice slithered through the silence. ‘Does a man good to see such an enticing sight after a hard day.’
Rosalind stiffened as, behind her, the squelch of his horse’s hooves ceased. A worm of fear wriggled in her belly. Nothing would surprise her about so-called gentlemen of the ton after her family’s experience with Nell’s guardian, Sir Peter Tadlow, and his cronies. Thank goodness Nell—her stepsister—was no longer at Stoney End; she had departed early that morning in their family coach to stay with her aunt, Lady Glenlochrie, in London to prepare for her debut into society. Hopefully she would be safe in her aunt’s care until the start of the Season.
The visitors to Halsdon Manor would not recognise Rosalind or Freddie, her brother, for they had never been welcome in society circles, but Nell was a different matter. Heaven knew who she had come into contact with whilst staying with various family members over the years.
Willing herself to stay calm, Rosalind finished fixing her skirts and only then did she turn to face the horseman, Hector’s stick hidden in the folds of her skirt, the rough bark reassuring against her palm. The gentleman was tall and dark with classically patrician features. His skin was unusually swarthy and he sat his sweat-stained black hunter with insolent grace. His finely moulded lips were stretched in a smile that did not touch his eyes, the darkest Rosalind had ever seen. He raked her from head to toe with a gaze full of cold calculation that left a trail of wariness and vulnerability in its wake.
‘Good afternoon to you, sir.’
Head high, Rosalind moved to pass the horse and rider, to head back up the lane in the direction of her home. Her attempt to brazen it out failed. The man backed his horse sharply around in front of her, blocking her path—so close the smell of the animal filled her nostrils and waves of heat from its sweat-soaked skin washed over her face.
‘Not so fast, m’dear.’ The rider’s tone was sharp, his eyes intent. ‘I simply wish to introduce myself.’ He raised his hat. ‘Anthony Lascelles, at your…service.’
Rosalind’s stomach clenched at the oily insinuation in his tone.
‘I am the new owner of Halsdon Manor,’ Lascelles continued. ‘And you are…?’
‘Mrs Pryce.’ Thank goodness she’d had the foresight to adopt the guise of a widow when they moved to Buckinghamshire. Her false identity boosted her courage. ‘Now, if you will excuse me…’ She attempted once more to bypass Lascelles’s horse.
Again, he reined the black round to block her path. Rosalind gritted her teeth and glared up at him, then jerked away as he reached down to tug at her shawl. She brandished the stick, ready to do battle, then recalled Hector—no doubt still patiently awaiting her call. She smiled inside at the thought of Lascelles’s shock. She put two fingers to her mouth and whistled.
Behind her came the scrabble of claws on wood, then Hector was by her side, hackles raised, snarling in defence of his mistress. A dog of the type developed to hunt wolves in Ireland many centuries before, Hector was a magnificent animal, his head level with Rosalind’s hip. Lascelles’s horse sidled and plunged, throwing his head in the air, tail swishing in agitation as his rider paled, his eyes wide and lips tight. A skilled horsewoman herself, Rosalind sensed the black’s reaction was due as much to the tension of his master’s hand on the rein as to Hector’s appearance.
Surely Lascelles would detain her no longer?
The sharp voice sounded above Hector’s growls and the silence was sudden and absolute. Amongst the confusion, Rosalind had failed to notice the arrival of three more riders. Her nerves strung tighter. Even Hector could not withstand four men if they were intent on harm. Rosalind grasped his collar, more for her own comfort than by the need to restrain the dog, for he had responded to that autocratic command and now stood, mute but alert, his gaze locked on to Lascelles. Rosalind concentrated on breathing steadily and maintaining her outward calm, despite the tremble of her knees.
‘How much further back to the Manor, Anthony?’
It was the middle of the three—chisel-jawed and broad-shouldered, with a haughty, aristocratic air—who spoke, his voice clipped. He sat his huge bay with the grace of one born to the saddle, his mud-spattered breeches stretched over muscled thighs, his gloved hands resting casually on the pommel. The hard planes of his face were relieved by his beautifully sculptured mouth, his eyes were an arresting silvery grey under heavy lids and straight dark brows, and his hair, glimpsed under his hat, was very dark, near black.
Rosalind’s racing heart thundered in her ears as her palms grew clammy. She swallowed past a hard lump in her throat and raised her chin, still fighting to hide her panic.
‘A mile or so down there.’ Lascelles pointed with his whip.
‘In that case let us proceed. It is getting late and I for one am tired and hungry. If you really wished to spend your time on that sort of hunting, I suggest you should have remained in London. I’ve no doubt the quarry there is less well protected.’
With that, his gaze swept over Rosalind, who experienced an instant tug of attraction despite the arrogance of his perusal—he had not even bothered to glance at her face. His indifference as he viewed her muddy boots and shabby attire stirred her resentment, but his words, and his tone of voice, had reassured. Surely this was not a man to turn a blind eye to a woman in jeopardy?
Then the man’s attention moved to her face. Rosalind sensed a subtle shift in his bearing as his silvery eyes narrowed, boring into hers with such intensity her insides performed a somersault. She felt a blush creep up her neck to her cheeks. Despite her aversion to his kind, she could not deny his magnetism. Try as she might, she could not tear her gaze from his, even though the slow curve of his lips in a knowing smile made her blood simmer.
The spell he cast was broken when Lascelles, who had finally brought his horse under control, manoeuvred it between Rosalind and the other men, blocking her view of all but the man on the right of the three, who had removed his hat to reveal thick, brown hair and chocolate-brown eyes.
‘You three ride on to the Manor,’ Lascelles said. ‘I won’t be long: I simply wish to reach an understanding with the charming Mrs Pryce.’
The brown-haired man threw a look of disgust at Lascelles. ‘Leave her alone, Lascelles,’ he said. ‘I’ll wager there are willing women aplenty around here, but she don’t seem to be one of them.’
‘Ah, but therein lies the attraction, my dear Stanton. I find I enjoy a spot of resistance in my wenches—it adds spice to the chase and makes the ultimate reward all the sweeter, don’t you know?’
He made her skin crawl. How dare he talk about her like this, as though she were not even present? Wench indeed.
Lascelles swivelled his head, assessing Rosalind with his chilling black gaze and a humourless smile. ‘And I always do get my reward, you know.’ he added.
‘Get him out of here, Stan.’ Quiet words, spoken with menace, by the man with those hypnotic silver eyes.
Stanton spurred his horse alongside Lascelles, jostling the other man’s horse so it faced in the direction of Halsdon Manor as Rosalind sidestepped out of their way, tugging a still-alert Hector by the collar.
‘Let us go, Lascelles. You lead the way.’ Stanton shot an apologetic look at Rosalind as he rode past her, tipping his hat.
But Lascelles, with a snarl, hauled his horse round to confront the remaining two men.
‘You have no right—’
His venom was clearly directed at the silver-eyed man, but it was the third man who kicked his horse into motion. He was handsome, with green eyes and chestnut-coloured hair, and bore such a striking likeness to the first newcomer and, to a lesser extent, Lascelles that Rosalind could not doubt all three were related.
‘Don’t be a fool, man,’ he muttered, placing his hand on Lascelles’s forearm. ‘You know how Leo feels about such matters. Leave well alone.’
Lascelles hesitated, his lips a thin line, his brows low. Then he gave an abrupt nod, wheeled his still-fretting horse around and followed Stanton down the lane. The green-eyed man hesitated in his turn, glancing at the man called Leo, who ignored him, his attention still fixed on Rosalind. The other man shrugged, raised his hat to Rosalind and gave his horse the office to proceed.
Leaving Rosalind facing Leo.
She met his gaze, suppressing the quiver that chased across her skin as he looked deep into her eyes—his expression impassive—for what seemed an eternity. Finally, goaded, she tilted her chin and raised her brows.
‘I am grateful, sir.’
His lips flickered in the ghost of a smile and he tipped his hat as he nudged his horse past Rosalind.
‘Good day to you, madam.’
She watched him go. Unfamiliar sensations swirled through her, provoking a sense of loss she could not begin to explain. Unbidden, her hand lifted to her chest. There, outlined beneath the wool of her gown, her fingers sought and found the oval shape of the silver locket made for her by Grandpa for her sixth birthday. Her most treasured possession, representing her father’s world, and her only link with his side of the family. Her mother had severed all links with the Allens after Papa was killed.
The gentleman riding away from her was of the world that had moulded her mother: a world of entitlement ruled by strict codes of behaviour and an unshakeable belief in class—a world that neither accepted nor acknowledged Rosalind and Freddie, even after their widowed mother had been welcomed back into its folds.
A hateful, unforgiving world that Rosalind wanted no part of.
But the emotions those silver eyes of his aroused in her paid no heed to reasoning. Those emotions picked her up and tossed her around until her head whirled as giddily as her stomach. Those emotions hinted at possibilities—they raised the promise of pleasure, disturbed a desire for the touch of a man’s hand and lips.
And not just any man.
She should be shocked at herself for such scandalous thoughts, but she was intrigued. Never before in her thirty years had a man aroused such feelings in her breast. Those eyes. They penetrated, seemingly, into her soul and, for the first time in her life, she had the inkling of an understanding of passion.
A nudge at her hand shook her from her reverie.
‘You’re right, Hector. It is of no use mooning after a handsome face.’
She was unsettled with being forced to leave Lydney Hall, that was all. It would pass. All things did pass, given time.
‘Come, let us go home.’
Hector trotted up the lane ahead of Rosalind, stopping at intervals to investigate an interesting smell. Rosalind tramped in his wake and contemplated her future with little enthusiasm.
Thirty years of age, and the past fourteen years of her life spent raising Freddie, their stepsister, Nell, and stepbrother, Jack, after their own mother died of childbed fever. Rosalind had long accepted she would never marry or have children and she had always been content with her lot until her beloved stepfather had died quite unexpectedly last spring, leaving chaos in the wake of his passing.
Step-Papa had made his will, leaving pensions for both Rosalind and Freddie and making provision for a generous dowry for Nell. The title and estates now belonged to fourteen-year-old Jack, Eighth Earl of Lydney, and those estates were held in trust for him until his twenty-first birthday. But the late Earl’s younger brother—named in his will as guardian to his children—had predeceased him by three short months and the Court of Chancery in London had appointed Nell and Jack’s maternal uncle, Sir Peter Tadlow—their closest male relative—as their guardian.
Yes, Rosalind had been content, until Sir Peter had descended upon Lydney Hall to ‘fulfil my obligations to my dearest nephew’. It had not taken long for his true nature to emerge. Lydney Hall was soon plagued by visits from Sir Peter’s friends and acquaintances, with Jack’s inheritance paying the bills. Sir Peter did not hide his utter contempt for Rosalind and Freddie and their humble parentage—their father had been a soldier, the son of a silversmith, who had eloped with the granddaughter of a duke—and he and his visitors viewed Rosalind as ‘fair game’ and Freddie as an object of ridicule. They would have remained at the Hall and tolerated any amount of unpleasantness, however, had it not been for Sir Peter’s plans for Nell.
Rosalind swallowed down her impotent rage at the thought of seven long, frustrating years with Jack’s estates and future under the control of that…wastrel.
As she arrived at the gate of Stoney End, the modest house they had called home for the past fortnight, Rosalind tore her brooding thoughts from her long-term future, directing them to the next few days instead. Immediately, a handsome face with a mesmeric gaze and sensual lips invaded her thoughts and that peculiar blend of yearning and curiosity swirled through her once more.
Would they meet again? Should she fear such a meeting? Should she fear him?
Her intuition told her no…at least, not in the way she might fear another meeting with Lascelles. But there remained a thread of unease. Even as an innocent, she sensed the danger of a different kind that he posed.
To her. To her heart. To her peace of mind.